Slowing Down and Silence

The first full week of Lent

Dear Readers,

As soon as I learned to read in the first grade I couldn’t keep my hands off books, often rereading the same titles. My favorite was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The protagonist’s mother was dead, so I felt a keen kinship with her and read that battered yellow book again and again and again. I constantly renewed Green Poodles from the school library. I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series with its little mysteries to solve, and I adored a series about Mrs. Piggle Wiggle.

I recall about one story from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle all these years later, especially after lung surgery and chemo forced me to slow down. If I remember correctly (it’s been more than forty years since I read these books), parents would bring troubled children to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle for advice, and she would help them using magic. One such girl was always late, and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle caused her to slow down. At first, this made no sense to the child, but as she slowly got dressed, she realized that life flowed more smoothly when she wasn’t frantically rushing around. Slowing down meant that she was no longer late all the time.

Pre-pandemic, Sunday mornings had stopped feeling spiritual to me, partly because I constantly rushed around between the three services and education hour. Now that we have just one service livestreamed and only five of are in the building, I don’t need to rush around, and I want to try to keep this up once church starts back in person (by Easter, please God!!): not only because rushing makes me breathless with my newly reduced lung capacity, but because when I’m not rushing I am more attuned to God. I’ve been reading a book about the desert mothers, and this line particularly resonates: “Desert ascetics believed that the greatest enemies of the inner journey were hurry, crowds and noise.”

Heidi Haverkamp’s focus in Holy Solitude this first full week of Lent has been silence. I loved her description of the time she gave up music for Lent. That discipline proved to be more of an endurance test than something spiritual perhaps because, she reflects in retrospect, she didn’t add anything to replace it, like prayer or conversation with God.

Her reflection question that resounded most deeply with me this week was, “Have you noticed ‘moments of silence’ in your everyday life before?” I appreciated this suggestion: “Consider turning off sources of background sound in the course of your day.”

For me, noise isn’t always audible. Trying to add some silence in my day brings me back to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and the girl who was always late because she was rushing around. I pack a lot into my mornings before I go to the church office. I get up at 5 and write from 5:15-6:15. From around 6:15 until around 6:45, I take a little social media/newspaper/email break before walking Pepper at 6:45. (I am using that time right now to proof this newsletter before sending!) Then Gary and I walk from 7:00 until 8:00, except it’s never quite that prompt, especially this time of year when we have to put on various coats and gloves and reflective gear. Usually, we get back home around 8:10, and the church office opens at 9. (I live five minutes away, two miles, no stoplights.) When we return, before I jump into the shower, I gobble down some breakfast with the computer open. I read a digital newspaper or email or dive back into social: all the stuff I didn’t quite get to after writing.

Except for the writing and the walking, that’s all noise. This Lent, I have started eating my breakfast in silence or paying attention to my spouse if he eats at the same time, which may seem to vary from the solitude theme of the book but is a better practice for me. Instead of trying to multitask, I just eat. At a retreat twelve years ago we had a “mindful eating” lunch, where we didn’t speak, ate slowly, and paid attention to our bodies. I was struck that I was satiated by less food than I thought. I enjoyed the session, but it didn’t inspire me to routinely eat mindfully. I usually eat lunch at my desk, staring at the computer. I often rush through dinner because I have to make a meeting or evening program afterward. These mindful breakfasts are something I may keep after Lent, and may might try to spread to other meals. For now, I’m just trying to pay attention to my breakfast for forty days. Maybe sometime I will hear from God in the silent space I’m creating.

What about you? Assuming you are reading this book with me, how is silence working out for you this first week of Lent? Please let me know in the comments.

Blessings,

Elizabeth

What I’m writing:

First Sunday in Lent sermon

What I’m reading:

Holy Solitude. This book by Heidi Haverkamp is my Lenten discipline. Hope you’re reading and reflecting with me.

The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women by Laura Swan. Still reading this one a little at a time.

I met Dana VanderLugt in my MFA program and am a giant fan of her work. This piece she wrote for The Twelve spoke to me this week, especially as we approach the anniversary of what felt to me like the world shutting down. I can’t believe it’s Lent again.

Barren, Wild and Worthless by Susan Tweit. I’m working on an essay about barrenness and the desert so picked this up. I have a used copy with someone else’s highlights, which makes me crazy, especially in a hardcover book.

Heidi recommended Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography by Amy Frykholm. I find it easier to read than the one I linked to last week, but I resist the idea that Julian had children. (Which the writer acknowledges in her introduction is a controversial stance.)

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